Auburn Tigers: T.J. Yeldon

We've already ranked all 14 running back groups in the SEC. Now it's time to check out who we think will be the 10 best running backs in the league this fall when it comes to production and team value:

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley has been slowed by injuries but still projects to be the best back in the SEC in 2014.
1. Todd Gurley, Jr., Georgia: Nagging injuries have slowed Gurley, but he still has more than 2,300 career rushing yards and almost 30 touchdowns. The Heisman Trophy candidate is built to pound but can break big runs in an instant. He has averaged 6.1 yards per carry, has 13 100-yard rushing games in his career and is also extremely active in the passing game, where he has 558 career receiving yards. Gurley wants to run tougher and harder this year, which is just plain scary.

2. T.J. Yeldon, Jr., Alabama: After registering 1,235 yards last year, Yeldon became the first back in school history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in his first two seasons. Yeldon has had his fumbling issues, but when he’s in control he’s extremely tough to stop with the strength he has to grind out yards. Add on his speed and elusiveness, and Yeldon has no problem making defenders look silly.

3. Derrick Henry, So., Alabama: OK, so all the excitement around him stems from an incredible high school career and a superb bowl performance. But we saw so much power and finesse in all 161 yards of total offense he had in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Henry is the total package and an every-down back who can push his way through the line of scrimmage like a tank but is also deadly in space. Don’t be shocked if he eats up a big chunk of Yeldon’s carries.

4. Mike Davis, Jr., South Carolina: You could easily put him higher because of pure, brute strength and his speed and elusiveness. After rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, Davis’ stock in this league has skyrocketed. Last season, Davis rushed for 100 or more yards seven times.

5. Alex Collins, So., Arkansas: The prize of Bret Bielema’s first recruiting class, Collins became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine in a row in 2004. Collins fell off after a great start but still finished with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson could be primed for a breakout 2014 season in a featured-back role.
6. Tra Carson, RJr., Texas A&M: Carson wasn’t asked to do a lot last year (329 yards and seven touchdowns on 62 carries), but that will change with Ben Malena gone. Carson will no longer be viewed as just a short-yardage guy. He has a ton of power but also can explode out of the backfield and make plays in the passing game. He’s also deceptively elusive in open space.

7. Jonathan Williams, Jr., Arkansas: Like Collins, he started the 2013 season off fast with three straight 100-plus-yard games. He finished the year with 900 yards and four touchdowns but could be even better in 2014. Having Collins play better shouldn’t hurt, either, because of how well they complement each other. While Collins is capable of big plays with his speed, Williams is more of a power runner.

8. Leonard Fournette, Fr., LSU: No, he hasn’t touched the ball at the college level or gone through practice with the Tigers. But he was the nation's top-rated prospect in the 2014 class and ran for almost 1,800 yards as a senior in high school. He rushed for more than 7,600 yards in his high school career and was ready to run at the college level before his senior prom. He’s built like a truck and will run like one with the Tigers.

9. Cameron Artis-Payne, Sr., Auburn: The Tigers won’t have a problem spreading the wealth around at running back this fall, but Artis-Payne is built to carry the load. Corey Grant is used as more of a speed back in this offense, while Artis-Payne is more of an every-down back for the Tigers, and his downhill style should thrive with more touches.

10. Kelvin Taylor, So., Florida: Taylor has NFL blood coursing through his veins, and people in Gainesville hope to see more of his father, Fred Taylor, out of him this fall. He progressed as last season went on and finished with 508 yards and four touchdowns. Taylor is faster and more agile now and has the chance to be a true game-changer in a more wide-open offensive scheme.
Today, we continue our look at each position in the SEC by checking out quite the loaded group: Running backs.

SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.

This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:

Alabama's TJ Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJunior T.J. Yeldon leads an Alabama running back corps that might be the best in the nation.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide might have the nation’s best backfield. T.J. Yeldon enters the 2014 season with 2,343 career rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while sophomore Derrick Henry, who might be the most talented back on the roster, excels as a bruiser and a cruiser with his pounding frame and elite speed. Junior Kenyan Drake provides a nice change-of-pace with his elusiveness, and the Tide will grind away with mammoth Jalston Fowler.

2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.

3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.

4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.

5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.

6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.

7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough could be on the verge of a breakout season for Missouri.
9. Missouri: The Tigers might have a gem in junior Russell Hansbrough. He isn’t the biggest back, but he blends power and speed and churned out 6.0 yards per carry last season. Hansbrough is primed for a breakout year and will have a good complement in Marcus Murphy, who is an extremely explosive player at running back and in the return game. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward, who is bigger than Mizzou’s typical backs, but might be the fastest of the bunch.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.

11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.

13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.

SEC's lunch links

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
12:00
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Johnny Manziel will throw out the first pitch in tonight's Cleveland Indians game. It's a safe bet he won't go all 50 Cent on us.
It’s never too early to look ahead.

The 2014 NFL draft is over. It’s dead to us already. On to 2015.

The SEC had the first pick (Jadeveon Clowney), the most intriguing pick (Johnny Manziel), the most talked-about pick (AJ McCarron) and the most historically significant pick (Michael Sam) in the entire draft this year. The league even had the most overall picks with 49.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper could be a coveted WR for the 2015 NFL draft.
What will it do for an encore in 2015? While it’s hard to imagine SEC players dominating headlines in quite the same way, the league will undoubtably have a strong contingent of players drafted.

With that in mind, the SEC Blog decided to project next year’s top 20 NFL draft prospects. Edward Aschoff picked his 10 from the East earlier. Now it’s time for 10 from the West to keep an eye on, in alphabetical order:

  • La’el Collins, OL, LSU: Collins very well could have skipped school, entered the draft and been taken anywhere from the second to fourth round. But he chose to return to school, which could pay huge dividends if he improves his pass blocking. Already a known road-grader in the running game, he’ll benefit from the versatility to play either guard or tackle.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: He’ll make plays in the passing game. He’ll make plays at the line of scrimmage. And just in case you want an immediate return, he’ll make plays in special teams. The former five-star prospect showed his all-around game this past season with 70 tackles, eight passes defended, four tackles for loss and two interceptions. With a big junior season, his stock could soar.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: He is silky smooth on the football field. But don’t let that fool you; he’s got all the moves. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he can run in the 4.3-second range. He can go get the ball in traffic and has come up big in clutch situations. With his nifty footwork, he’ll remind some of Colts wideout Reggie Wayne.
  • Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: A third-round grade from the NFL draft board wasn’t enough to get Flowers to leave school early. After racking up 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, he returns to Fayetteville with the opportunity to improve upon those numbers. Strong, quick and well-built at 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds, he could turn heads in 2014.
  • C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: This one might come as a bit of a surprise after he missed more than half of last season to an injury. But the NFL clearly loves pass rushers (23 defensive ends were drafted this year), and Johnson is one of the best in the SEC. He has that quick first step scouts covet. If he can show he’s athletic enough to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, he could make himself attractive to several NFL teams.
  • Bernardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State: The tape doesn't lie. McKinney has been a tackling machine for two years now. He could have entered this year’s draft, but stayed. If Mississippi State makes a run this year, he’ll get noticed. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he can run in the 4.6 range, which will catch scouts’ eyes.
  • Jalen Mills, DB, LSU: You just know the Tigers are going to produce an NFL defensive back, and Mills has all the tools to develop into that guy. The former Freshman All-American has played both cornerback and safety, which will help him at the next level.
  • Cedric Ogbuehi, OL, Texas A&M: It will look familiar -- another Aggies offensive lineman going in the first round of the NFL draft, and Ogbuehi has all the tools to do it. He has played guard and right tackle already, but this year will star at the big-money position of left tackle.
  • Gabe Wright, DL, Auburn: It’s easy to forget that Wright was once a top-30 prospect in the country. Playing in the interior of the defensive line can get you lost. But with a big season, we could see Wright catch the attention of scouts and make a Dee Ford-like rise up draft boards.
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: It’s not a good time to be a running back coming out of college. And leaving early seems strange, but after all the carries Yeldon has racked up and the pressure behind him on the depth chart, it might be time to leave. He might not have great top-end speed, but scouts will love his vision, blocking and general all-around game.
On the eve of national signing day, it's always fun to go back and examine where the top players in the SEC from this past season were ranked coming out of high school.

Of the 23 position players who made the 2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team, seven were three-star prospects, according to the ESPN Recruiting Nation rankings. The only five-star prospects were Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Beth Hall/USA TODAY SportsJadeveon Clowney was one of only two five-star recruits on the 2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team.
Even more telling, only eight of the 23 players were ranked among the top 10 players at their respective positions.

Of note, Vanderbilt's record-setting Jordan Matthews was ranked as the No. 153 receiver, Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson was the No. 125 offensive tackle, Arkansas' Travis Swanson was the No. 91 offensive guard, Missouri's Michael Sam was the No. 75 defensive end and LSU's Lamin Barrow was the No. 82 outside linebacker.

Here's a closer look:

OFFENSE

  • QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Three stars, No. 39 QB, Class of 2011. Grade: 78.
  • RB Tre Mason, Auburn: Four stars, No. 21 RB, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Four stars, No. 55 overall prospect, No. 4 RB, Class of 2012. Grade: 81.
  • WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M: Three stars, No. 52 WR, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: Three stars, No. 153 WR, Class of 2010. Grade: 74.
  • AP Odell Beckham Jr., LSU: Three stars, No. 62 athlete, Class of 2011. Grade: 78.
  • TE Arthur Lynch, Georgia: No. 7 TE, Class of 2009. Grade: 79.
  • OL Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: No. 125 OT, Class of 2009. Grade: 74.
  • OL Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama: Five stars, No. 3 overall prospect, No. 1 OT, Class of 2011. Grade: 87.
  • OL Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: Four stars, No. 90 overall prospect. No. 7 OT, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • OL Greg Robinson, Auburn: Four stars, No. 10 OG, Class of 2011. Grade: 80.
  • C Travis Swanson, Arkansas: No. 91 OG, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
DEFENSE

  • DL Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: Five stars, No. 1 overall prospect, No. 1 DE, Class of 2011. Grade: 95.
  • DL Dee Ford, Auburn: No. 35 DE, Class of 2009. Grade: 79.
  • DL Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina: Four stars, No. 124 overall prospect, No. 11 DT, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • DL Michael Sam, Missouri: No. 75 DE, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
  • LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia: Four stars, No. 11 ILB, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • LB C.J. Mosley, Alabama: Four stars, No. 99 overall prospect, No. 7 OLB, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • LB Lamin Barrow, LSU: No. 82 OLB, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
  • DB Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: Four stars, No. 19 overall prospect, No. 2 S, Class of 2011. Grade: 84.
  • DB E.J. Gaines, Missouri: Three stars, No. 57 CB, Class of 2010. Grade: 76.
  • DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt: Three stars, No. 43 S, Class of 2010. Grade: 78.
  • DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: Three stars, No. 78 athlete, Class of 2011. Grade: 77.
On Wednesday, RecruitingNation put out its Ultimate ESPN 300, a ranking of the best high school football prospects since 2006. It incorporated both the prospect’s grade and projection out of high school combined with his actual college impact and production.

The top six players all hail from the SEC, and Auburn was well represented with seven players on the list, including six in the top 150. Freshman defensive end Carl Lawson, ranked No. 93, was at the top of the list for the Tigers. The Peach State product was the No. 2 overall player in last year’s ESPN 300 and showed glimpses of his potential this past season.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsTre Mason didn't make the ESPN 150 coming out of high school, but his ranking in the Ultimate 300 shows how big of an impact he's had at Auburn.
Lawson is joined by fellow defensive linemen Montravius Adams (121), Nick Fairley (125) and Corey Lemonier (259) on the ultimate 300. Running back Tre Mason (124) and offensive linemen Lee Ziemba (135) and Greg Robinson (150) also made the cut.

Here’s a more detailed look at Auburn’s recruiting since 2006, the year our scouts began doing evaluations.

Overachiever: Mason and Robinson are both viable candidates. Neither was ranked in the ESPN 150, but the duo was instrumental in Auburn’s turnaround this past season. Let’s go a different route, though, and look at a player who was a little more under the radar coming out of high school. When wide receiver Darvin Adams signed with the Tigers in 2008, he was ranked No. 90 at his position. It was before RecruitingNation did star rankings, but his 77 grade would have made him a three-star prospect today. After only catching three passes as a freshman, Adams blew up as a sophomore in 2009. He finished among the SEC leaders with 60 catches for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns. He nearly duplicated those numbers in 2010 with 52 catches for 963 yards and seven touchdowns. The Georgia native left school early after his junior year but went undrafted and eventually signed with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent.

Underachiever: When Trovon Reed signed with Auburn in 2010, it was a major recruiting coup for Gene Chizik and his coaching staff. The four-star athlete was ranked No. 39 overall in the ESPN 150. However, his career has been hampered by injuries, and he’s yet to make the impact everybody expected him to make when he arrived. Reed’s best season came in 2011 as a redshirt freshman when he had 21 catches for 164 yards, but he’s had just nine catches in each of the past two seasons. There was talk that he might move to defensive back for his fifth and final year on the Plains, but coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t confirmed it, calling the move “premature” when he met with the media earlier this month. The move could help Reed, who is still looking to find his niche with this Auburn team. It might just be the perfect change of scenery for the once-promising prospect.

Most important: You won’t see his name on the Ultimate 300 because he came from junior college, but nobody’s made an impact on Auburn’s football program in the last decade like Cam Newton. He was only on the Plains for one season, but in that time, he won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to the 2010 BCS National Championship. He finished with 2,854 yards passing, 1,473 yards rushing and set the school record with 51 total touchdowns in a season. He was an iconic figure in college football. Before signing with Auburn, Newton took visits to Arizona, Mississippi State and Oklahoma.

Biggest miss: The losses of Cyrus Kouandjio and T.J. Yeldon, who both flipped from Auburn to Alabama during the recruiting process, were well-documented and likely hurt more because they went to an in-state rival. But let’s not forget how close the Tigers were to signing ESPN 150 running back Marcus Lattimore in 2010. It came down to Auburn and South Carolina for the Palmetto State prospect, who ultimately chose to stay in state. At the time, it was easy for AU fans to get over it because they had signed Michael Dyer, the nation’s No. 1 running back, but as good as Dyer was, he couldn’t stay out of trouble off the field. Can you imagine if Lattimore had come to Auburn and stayed healthy? He and Newton would’ve been scary in 2010.
Nine of the SEC's top 13 rushers from this season will return in 2014.

Who's the odds-on favorite to lead the league in rushing next season? That's your job.

SportsNation

Who will lead the SEC in rushing in 2014?

  •  
    18%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    11%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,953)

So go to our SportsNation poll and vote, and we'll break down the results later this week.

The top two rushers in the SEC this season -- Auburn's Tre Mason and LSU's Jeremy Hill -- opted to turn pro and won't be back.

But five more 1,000-yard rushers from this season will return, not to mention Georgia's Todd Gurley. Hurt for part of this season, Gurley still flirted with 1,000 yards in just 10 games.

It could be that the SEC's rushing leader next season isn't exactly a household name at this point. Not many people would have picked Mason at the start of this season to lead the league in rushing even though he rushed for 1,000 yards the year before. And two years ago, nobody saw Johnny Manziel bursting onto the scene as a redshirt freshman and leading the league in rushing.

Of the returnees, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon had the most rushing yards this season (1,235), and Yeldon also led the league in rushing in SEC games. Of course, next season, Yeldon will almost certainly share the backfield duties with Derrick Henry, who was lights out for the Crimson Tide in the bowl game.

SEC's Heisman hopefuls in 2014

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
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The SEC did pretty well for itself in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year. Even though Florida State's Jameis Winston ultimately wound up hoisting the prize, three SEC players found themselves among the top six receiving votes.

All three of those players are gone. AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel and Tre Mason are off to try their hand in the National Football League.

With that, we're left to wonder who will emerge as the SEC's Heisman favorites in 2014. With so many big names gone -- Aaron Murray, Jadeveon Clowney, Odell Beckham Jr., Zach Mettenberger -- the field of favorites is as wide open as ever.

Here is our list of the top five candidates to win the 2014 Heisman Trophy from the SEC:

Georgia RB Todd Gurley: Had Gurley stayed healthy, he may have had a seat in New York last year. Had he not missed all of October, he might have had the stats to support such a trip. Even so, the talented tailback averaged 98.9 yards per game and had one of the most impressive touchdown-to-rush ratios in the country at 6.1 percent, a full percentage point more than Boston College's Andre Williams, who finished fourth in the Heisman balloting. At the Gator Bowl, Gurley showed that even on a sore ankle he is one of the best backs in the country, racking up 183 total yards of offense against the Blackshirts of Nebraska. With a full offseason to heal and a new quarterback under center, Gurley could be asked to do even more in 2014.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Nick Marshall has been a Division I QB for just one season and is already one of the SEC's biggest playmakers. His potential is scary.
Auburn QB Nick Marshall: Gus Malzahn brought this point up an awful lot last season, but it bears repeating: Marshall became a Division I quarterback only some seven months ago. He didn't have the benefit of spring practice and still won the starting quarterback job at Auburn. After a few bumpy starts, he became one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league. For the first six games of the season, he ranked 40th in the country in Adjusted QBR. From then on he would rank third in Adjusted QBR with 20 total touchdowns, two interceptions and an average of 231.8 total yards per game. Now imagine all he could do with that kind of momentum and a full offseason to prepare.

South Carolina RB Mike Davis: We entered last season touting the SEC's stellar class of young running backs with Gurley, Marshall and Mason. For a while we left out Davis, a relative unknown after staying in the shadow of Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina. But Davis let us know who he was right away, running for 115 yards in the season opener against North Carolina and 149 more in a prime-time matchup with Georgia. He wound up rushing for 100 or more yards in all but two of the Gamecocks' first nine games. He fell off the map some in his final three games, due in no small part to a nagging ankle injury. If he can get that corrected, he could be one of the league's most productive backs in 2014.

Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon: He's not thought of as an explosive back, but why not? Yeldon finished last season with an impressive 34 rushes for 10 or more yards, more than every running back in the SEC not named Tre Mason or Jeremy Hill. All told, Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns -- both improvements from his freshman year. With the help of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, Yeldon won't have to shoulder the load next season, but he'll still be the man with the most carries and the best shot at making it to New York.

Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott: He's a dark horse, no doubt, but don't count out Prescott. He didn't finish the season 10th in Adjusted QBR for no reason. The talented sophomore quietly put up some big numbers and ended the year strong, coming off the bench to lead a fourth-quarter comeback against Ole Miss and following that up with a five-touchdown performance in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice. With so many veteran quarterbacks of the SEC gone, he could quickly pick up the mantle as the league's best.

SEC's lunch links

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
1:45
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Happy new year. Take some time from watching football all day and see what’s happening around the SEC in today’s lunch links, the first of 2014.
  • An Auburn fan from Phenix City, Ala., was at the miracle victory against Georgia. He got to meet Gus Malzahn three weeks later. Now, thanks to a hotel guest, he’s headed to Pasadena to see the Tigers play in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.
  • With the impending departure of AJ McCarron, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon is primed to be the face of the Crimson Tide offense.
  • South Carolina has won back-to-back bowl games against Big Ten teams, but yet the Gamecocks are underdogs against Wisconsin in Wednesday’s Capital One Bowl. Why?
  • LSU and its fans have been uninspired in two of their last three non-BCS bowls. Will the Tigers be motivated for Wednesday’s Outback Bowl against Iowa?
  • Georgia is used to playing its SEC East opponents (and Auburn) on an annual basis, but the Bulldogs will see a familiar foe when they face Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.
  • Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy and Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson, who worked together under Les Miles, share the same philosophy on offense.
  • It was all about Johnny Manziel in Texas A&M’s comeback win over Duke in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, but the seniors stepped up when the Aggies needed them most.

How they fared vs. SEC competition

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
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One of the most revealing things to do every year is going back and looking at how players fared against SEC competition.

The numbers always look a little different when you take out some of the teams that were sacrificial lambs. With that in mind, here’s a quick checklist of the league leaders and their numbers against SEC foes (not counting the SEC championship game):

RUSHING

1. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: 988 yards, 6.2 yards per carry
2. Tre Mason, Auburn: 985 yards, 5.1 yards per carry
3. Jeremy Hill, LSU: 875 yards, 6.1 yards per carry
4. Mike Davis, South Carolina: 830 yards, 5.9 yards per carry
5. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 769 yards, 6.6 yards per carry

TOUCHDOWNS

1. Tre Mason, Auburn: 13
2. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: 11
3. Henry Josey, Missouri: 10
4. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 9
4. Jeremy Hill, LSU: 9
4. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 9
4. Jerron Seymour, Vanderbilt: 9

TOTAL OFFENSE

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 394.6 yards per game
2. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: 300.8 yards per game
3. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 275.4 yards per game
4. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: 269.3 yards per game
5. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 257.5 yards per game

PASSING YARDS

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 336.9 yards per game
2. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: 283.4 yards per game
3. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 257.9 yards per game
4. AJ McCarron, Alabama: 246.4 yards per game
5. Zach Mettenberger, LSU: 244.6 yards per game

PASSING TDs/INTs

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 22/11
2. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 21/6
3. Connor Shaw, South Carolina: 18/1
4. AJ McCarron, Alabama: 18/3
5. Maty Mauk, Missouri: 10/2

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMichael Sam had 7.5 sacks in SEC play, and Missouri players ranked 1-2 and tied for third in that statistic.
RECEIVING YARDS

1. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 122.5 yards per game
2. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: 113.4 yards per game
3. Jarvis Landry, LSU: 104.9 yards per game
4. Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss: 79.5 yards per game
5. Odell Beckham, LSU: 72.9 yards per game

TOUCHDOWN CATCHES

1. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 9
2. L'Damian Washington, Missouri: 7
3. Bruce Ellington, South Carolina: 6
3. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri: 6
3. Kevin Norwood, Alabama: 6

SACKS

1. Michael Sam, Missouri: 7.5
2. Markus Golden, Missouri: 6.5
3. Kony Ealy, Missouri: 6
3. Dee Ford, Auburn: 6
3. Garrison Smith, Georgia: 6

TACKLES FOR LOSS

1. Markus Golden, Missouri: 11
1. Michael Sam, Missouri: 11
3. Dee Ford, Auburn: 10
4. Trey Flowers, Arkansas: 9.5
5. Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina: 9

SEC sleepers for Heisman in 2014

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
3:30
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Now that Jameis Winston has been crowned this year's Heisman Trophy winner, it's time to take an early peak at the top candidates for next season. Our own Travis Haney did all the hard work for us earlier this week when he debuted his list of the top 10 candidates who should be up for the award in 2014.

Winston tops his list, but he also had four players from the SEC -- Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon and Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham -- on there.

I like all four of those choices, and it should be noted that like me, he doesn't see Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel or Auburn running back Tre Mason returning to school in 2014. That's why you won't find them on his list.

I think Gurley might have the best chance out of this bunch because he pretty much proved that he's one of the country's best players -- regardless of position -- when he's healthy. And he really was never 100 percent after that ankle injury, yet still managed to finish with 903 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He also caught 30 passes for 344 yards and five more scores.

In what could be his final year in Athens, Gurley could have a big, big year if he stays healthy.

So who are some other SEC players to keep an eye on in the Heisman race? Well it's way, way too early, but who cares? I'd love to have A&M's Mike Evans on this list, but I think after back-to-back monster seasons, Manziel's top receiving target is off to greener pastures.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
AP Photo/John RaouxSophomore Mike Davis had five 100-yard games in SEC play.
Here are five other guys who you should pay attention to:

1. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Because I think LSU running back Jeremy Hill isn't long for the SEC and will likely take his talents to the NFL, Davis gets my top spot. He's great between the tackles, can hit the home run play on the outside and isn't too bad in the passing game. He's fourth in the SEC with 1,134 rushing yards and has 11 touchdowns. He also has caught 32 passes for 342 yards.

2. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU: It might be hard for him to stay at LSU after a tremendous junior year, but if he does, he should get some early Heisman love. He'll have a new quarterback, but Beckham showed this season that he certainly has go-to talent and he'll get some extra Heisman attention with his play in the return game. Not only did Beckham catch 57 passes for 1,117 yards and eight touchdowns during the regular season, he registered 947 return yards.

3. Henry Josey, RB, Missouri: A year and a half removed from shredding his knee, Josey made the ultimate comeback with 1,074 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. He was one of the most explosive backs in the SEC and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. More than 700 of Josey's yards came in SEC play this season. DGB will get most of the preseason love in Columbia this fall, but Josey has everything it takes to be an elite back in this league.

4. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: He had a relatively quiet regular season, but Cooper has what it takes to be a real superstar in this league. We saw major flashes of it during his freshman year, but nagging injuries cut his production in 2013. He caught 36 passes for 615 yards and four touchdowns, including a 99-yarder against Auburn. Cooper is a deep threat and can make the tough catches in traffic. If he's healthy, he could make a Heisman push, as he becomes the prime go-to guy for Alabama's new quarterback.

5. Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: OK, so we've been down this path before. A lot of hype dumped on a relatively inexperienced player. Usually, it doesn't pan out. The good news for Mauk is that he got some valuable playing time during the regular season. He learned from James Franklin and then performed swimmingly in his place after Franklin missed a month with a shoulder injury. Mauk knows the offense backward and forward, is a threat to run and pass, and should still have some nice offensive weapons around him next fall. During the regular season, he threw for 1,039 yards and 10 touchdowns, and he rushed for another 156 yards and a touchdown.
We couldn't finish our lists of SEC all-stars without talking about the youngsters who help make this league go round.

For our all-underclassmen team, we decided to use players who are true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or true sophomores. That means Johnny Manziel, a redshirt sophomore, wasn't eligible. I mean he can't make every list!

The criteria for our other lists once again apply. We're basing things on the season they had in 2013, not who will be the better draft prospect in the future.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Jerald Hawkins, LSU
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
C: Evan Boehm, Missouri
AP: Mike Davis, South Carolina

DEFENSE

DL: Carl Lawson, Auburn
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida
DL: Chris Jones, Miss. State
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Rashard Robinson, LSU
DB: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Georgia
DB: Landon Collins, Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
RS: Trey Williams, Texas A&M

2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
9:00
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We still have the bowls to play, but we've gone ahead and selected our 2013 All-SEC team at ESPN.com.

Some of the selections were no-brainers. Others were agonizingly difficult to make. We placed a heavy emphasis on performance in big games, consistency and how a player impacted his team both on and off the field. Durability and being in the lineup the entire season was also a factor. In other words, if a player missed three or four games, we took that into account. And when it was close everywhere else, we looked at SEC-only statistics as the tiebreaker.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Tre Mason, Auburn
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M
WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
AP: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia
OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
OL: Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
OL: Greg Robinson, Auburn
C: Travis Swanson, Arkansas

DEFENSE

DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn
DL: Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
DL: Michael Sam, Missouri
LB: Ramik Wilson, Georgia
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
LB: Lamin Barrow, LSU
DB: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
DB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri
DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Michael Palardy, Tennessee
KR: Solomon Patton, Florida
PR: Chris Davis, Auburn

SEC stocked with young talent

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
1:00
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The Scouts Inc. guys, Todd McShay, Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl, have ranked the top 25 underclassmen in college football for 2013.

These would be freshmen, redshirt freshmen and true sophomores -- or players not eligible for the 2014 NFL draft.

Of their top 25 underclassmen, 14 were from the SEC, including seven of the top 10.

In other words, don't look for the talent level in the SEC to drop off any over the next couple of years.

Not surprisingly, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was the No. 1 player on the list. Winston is the heavy favorite to win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night in New York City.

Some fans might be a little surprised at who was the top SEC player on the list. Florida true freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III checked in at No. 2. Granted, it was a forgettable season for the Gators, but Hargreaves was outstanding with his ability to cover and make plays. Even though he's only played one season of college football, a lot of the scouts like him as much or more than the Gators' other two heralded cornerbacks -- Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy.

The other SEC players in the top 10 were:
[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFreshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III outshined even some of the upper classmen on Florida's defense.
Alabama had an SEC-high five players in the top 25. In addition to Cooper, Collins and Yeldon, defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson was No. 12 and tight end O.J. Howard was No. 15.

Ole Miss was next with three players, all members of the Rebels' top-5 2013 signing class. Receiver Laquon Treadwell was No. 16, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche No. 18 and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil No. 21.

Interestingly enough, seven of the 25 players on the list were true freshmen from the SEC. One that wasn't on there and will be is Mississippi State defensive tackle Chris Jones, who blossomed as the season progressed and has a chance to be dominant.

Another true freshman from the SEC who will almost certainly play his way onto the list is LSU cornerback Rashard Robinson. Go back and watch him in the Texas A&M game and the job he did on Mike Evans. Robinson wasn't cleared academically until the week of the first game this season, so with an entire spring and an entire preseason camp under his belt next year, Robinson should emerge as one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC.

Here's a rundown of all 14 SEC players who made the list:

  • 2. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida, Fr.
  • 4. Todd Gurley, Georgia, RB, So.
  • 5. Amari Cooper, Alabama, WR, So.
  • 6. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri, WR, So.
  • 8. Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida, DE, So.
  • 9. Landon Collins, Alabama, S, So.
  • 10. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama, RB, So.
  • 12. A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama, DT, Fr.
  • 15. O.J. Howard, Alabama, TE, Fr.
  • 16. Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss, WR, Fr.
  • 18. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss, DT, Fr.
  • 20. Mike Davis, South Carolina, RB, So.
  • 21. Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss, OT, Fr.
  • 23. Carl Lawson, Auburn, DE, Fr.

Alabama leads coaches All-SEC team

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
5:00
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The SEC coaches have spoken, and Alabama has once again taken over their end-of-the-year All-SEC team.

The Crimson Tide led the rest of the league with nine representatives on the coaches' teams, including an SEC-leading five first-team selections. LSU followed with eight total representatives. Texas A&M had four first-team members, while Auburn and Georgia both had three each.

Twelve of the league's 14 teams had at least one player on the first team, while every team was represented on at least one team. Coaches weren't allowed to vote for their own players.

Here are the coaches' first- and second-team selections:

First team

OFFENSE
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Tre Mason, Auburn
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
AP: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
OL: Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M
WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt

DEFENSE
DL: Michael Sam, Missouri
DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn
DL: Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
LB: Ramik Wilson, Georgia
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
DB: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
DB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
RS: Christion Jones, Alabama *
RS: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU *

Second team

OFFENSE
QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
TE: Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
OL: Antonio Richardson, Tennessee
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: Anthony Steen, Alabama
C: Travis Swanson, Arkansas
WR: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
AP: Marcus Murphy, Missouri

DEFENSE
DL: Anthony Johnson, LSU
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ed Stinson, Alabama
DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB: Lamin Barrow, LSU
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Nickoe Whitley, Mississippi State
DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Michael Palardy, Tennessee
P: Cody Mandell, Alabama
RS: Solomon Patton, Florida

-- (*-ties)

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